Into Torres del Paine

Torres come into view

The next destination on my increasingly touristic itinerary was Torres del Paine, the Chilean version of El Chaltén and the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. (I have now visited three Glacier National Parks, in Argentina, Canada, and the States. Canada’s Glacier, covering the area around Rogers Pass, probably offers the most mountaineering for someone like me. The States’ Glacier, in northern Montana, is certainly unique within the Lower 48, but does not measure up to the other two, and may not even contain any glaciers by 2030. Argentina’s is far and away the best by most measures, including volume of ice and world-class scenery.) The climbing in Torres del Paine is even more out of my league than that around Chaltén, but I thought I should at least see it while I was down here.

Welcome to the park… briefly

The normal way to get from where I was to TdP would be to return to Calafate, loop around via Route 40, then cross back into Chile at Cerro Castillo. However, while scrolling around the map on my phone one evening, I had noticed a potential route directly south from between Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier. It showed up as a mix of secondary roads and dashed “trails,” which can be anything from old roadbeds to faint game trails. However, the fact that it shows up in Open Street Map’s data usually means that someone has gone that way. I had worked hard to make it so far west (i.e. upwind), and did not want to give up that western progress by taking the long way around. Thanks to my two weeks at the Casa de Ciclistas in Chaltén, I had spoken to a Chilean cyclist who had actually taken that pass. He told me that it was rough hike-a-bike on the Argentine side, but largely rideable in Chile, and that there was complicated paperwork required to cross it legally. I badly needed to get off the beaten path for a little while, and did not care much about the paperwork, so it sounded perfect.

Rolling out kind of late, I turned south and west on typical Argentine dirt roads, and after about ten miles found the trail indicated on the map, with a ranch gate in the fence. There was a group of tourists coming back from a horseback ride as I arrived, so I rode past and waited for them to get out of sight before returning and letting myself through, being careful to keep a curious horse from escaping. I then followed easy singletrack for awhile, until it dissipated in a field. I almost went through another ranch gate, but the map suggested I needed to be farther east. I found an old ranch road where it should have been, but it was on the other side of a gate-less fence. By this time I was committed, so I disassembled my rig to pass my bike, trailer, and bag over.

Just as I was reassembling it, an old 4×4 with two gauchos pulled up, and one asked “todo bien?” I responded in the affirmative despite struggling a bit to reattach my trailer, and he asked where I was going. I replied “Torres del Paine,” and a conversation between the two ensued that included the words “cruce illegal.” I clearly wasn’t the first person they had caught doing this, and I did not have anyone’s permission, but thankfully they weren’t rigid about enforcing the law. They didn’t exactly seem to approve, but mostly didn’t want me to become their problem. The younger gaucho, who spoke very good English, warned me that it would be rough going with a bike, then asked me to remember that I didn’t see them. The older one asked me to please, please not start any fires. Then they continued driving up the road. I gave them some space, then followed.

Herding cows

I passed them once more, the younger one warned me again that things got bad ahead, then I was on my own. The old road continued for awhile past where they regularly drove, then gradually faded into a maze of active cowpaths. These were still about half rideable, and I only had to push for steepness, rocks, narrowness, and stream crossings. They deteriorated as I continued south and up the drainage, but I was mentally prepared for an afternoon of mostly pushing a bike, so I did not mind. I slogged doggedly on, encountering some bogs and stream crossings that were hard pushing, but not bad enough to force me to disassemble and carry. Unfortunately, as the valley narrowed I began catching up to cows, which were well-trained and formed a growing herd ahead of me. There were not many route options or places for me to pass them, so I increasingly rolled around and through fresh cow diarrhea.


The worst part of the trail for a cyclist came when it passed through some woods. Interestingly, I saw some sawn logs in this section, evidence that this was once a maintained route, but it had been awhile since there was any trailwork, and there was quite a bit of deadfall. I managed to thread my way through without having to take the trailer off to lift it over any large logs, but it was close. It would have been easy to get somewhat off-course here, but between the map and the occasional cut logs, I stayed on track without too much trouble. Still, it was slow and mostly pushing.

Beyond the woods, the valley opened up to a broad meadow with a stream meandering through it. There were cattle trails on both sides, so I hoped I would stop herding the cows, but they stayed ahead of me, though their being spread out meant less dung to dodge. The cowpaths were more rideable then not, as was the meadow itself, so this part passed relatively quickly. The broad valley eventually turned west, broadening and opening a view to the high peaks near Torres del Paine, and the main cattle trail disintegrated. Fortunately I had a map, because it is not at all obvious which side-valley should be followed to reach the pass. My cows finally left me, but I saw another in the distance and, worryingly, a man on a horse. I turned off my music and kept an eye on him, but did not acknowledge his presence, and kept going at a steady pace while giving him space, obviously not running away but not looking to talk. I thought he might be headed to intercept me, but he was only heading off some stray cows, turning them with loud whistles and high wordless yells.

Border fence

The final side-valley to the pass was cow-free at the moment, though they clearly grazed there from time to time. I passed through another ranch gate, pushed through some deep grass, then emerged in a rideable field climbing almost imperceptibly toward the gentle saddle forming the border. The left side of the valley had a tall tripod border marker, but the right side had a gate promising some sort of path or road. The gate was locked, but had clearly not been used in a very long time. I lifted my disassembled bike over it, then climbed into Chile. The subtly-downhill meadow was immediately rideable, and I soon picked up the old road.

Nice place to sleep

I knew there was a cabin along the way, but not where it was, so I was just looking for any old place to camp. As it turned out, the cabin was only a few miles down the road, and in excellent shape, with intact windows and a latched door. Looking inside, I was concerned by its tidiness and the roll of toilet paper on the table, but it was not presently in use. I threw down my tarp, pad, and bag, then fetched water from the nearby stream, which had somehow not been fouled by cows. It was a wonderfully peaceful place to spend the night, clean and quiet, with a table and chairs. I soaked in the tranquility, knowing that the next day would take me to one of the most touristic parts of my entire trip.

Good riding in Chile

I took my time packing up the next day, reluctantly bidding farewell to my little house, and continued down the road. I looked closely at the tracks on the road, and eventually saw some old horse manure and what looked like quad tracks, but I encountered enough washouts to keep ordinary 4×4’s out, and I doubt that even quads have been to the upper parts in quite awhile. Most of it was rideable, with some parts remarkably smooth and fast, but I had to push through many of the washed-out ravine crossings, and one was steep and deep enough to force me to carry my rig across in pieces. The famous Torres del Paine came into view, making this gentle and rideable descent even more enjoyable.

Gentle ford

I eventually reached a final ford of an unnamed (?) river, where the route becomes the Y-160. The water was cold, but no more than calf-deep, and I easily crossed in shoes with my socks and insoles shoved in my pockets, pushing the bike. Though it is a labeled route, this part is steep and no longer seems passable by vehicle. I pushed my bike up the first part, then was barely able to ride the upper half to the edge of the river valley, where an occupied house with a truck outside marked the beginning of vehicular civilization. I rode by quickly and quietly, and the road gradually became more and more well-traveled as I descended toward the park.

By the time I crossed the park boundary at the underwhelming Laguna Azul, it was back to standard Chilean dusty washboard. There was quite a bit of traffic on this section, which fortunately abated once I turned off to reach the Rio Paine. I passed through some sort of internal entry station chaotic enough that I was not required to show a pass, then continued to the central camping area for the Torres. Looking online, I knew that they charged $25 per night, but I pitched a tent at the farthest end from the kiosk, and no one bothered me. I only had food for another two or three days, and there is no grocery store in the park, so I had one day to hike before leaving one direction or another. I guiltily availed myself of the showers, then cooked dinner in my tent and quickly fell asleep.

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